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SIOUX CITY | For centuries, people of all ages have looked at their surroundings, their natural curiosities leading to questions about how the world and the things in it work.

Their minds continually look for answers. It's how discoveries are made, how new inventions come into being.

It's what being a scientist is all about.

Josiah Dykstra's curiosity was piqued when he first saw a computer in Joyce Rasmussen's fifth-grade classroom in Sioux City's now-closed Lincoln Elementary School.

"I was intrigued by how does this thing work. What can I make it do?" Dykstra said.

At Bishop Heelan High School, that curiosity remained. Now Dykstra wanted to know how computers networked or "spoke" to each other. He couldn't get enough information.

His search for answers has led to a career in cybersecurity research, work that recently was honored when then-President Barack Obama named Dykstra one of 102 recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, an award established by President Bill Clinton in 1996 to honor young science and engineering professionals for their research in science and technology.

A subject matter expert in computer network operations at the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, Dykstra said it was an honor to be nominated, then to receive the award.

"I could have never predicted where I am today. To have a presidential award is a big deal. I was really excited," said Dykstra, the son of Dan and Sharon Dykstra.

Dykstra's work, too, is a big deal.

We all have computers, cellphones and online accounts that have passwords protecting vital information. The government has troves of information that must be protected from spies and hackers.

Staying one step ahead of them is about as important as it gets.

"It's a problem that isn't going away," Dykstra said.

Dykstra followed his interest in computers by receiving bachelor's degrees in computer science and music from Hope College in Michigan in 2002, then a master's degree in information assurance from Iowa State in 2004. While at Iowa State, Dykstra had three internships with the NSA and accepted a full-time job there after completing his master's.

"I like the mission of the NSA, which is to help protect the nation. I get to do things at the NSA that I wouldn't get to do elsewhere," said Dykstra, a 1998 Heelan grad who has since added a Ph.D in computer science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Generally, Dyskstra said, the NSA's research is to advance security through science. He enjoys tackling the tough problems associated with developing new cybersecurity programs.

For example, he's currently working on a project to find ways to protect against phishing -- unsolicited emails that try to trick people into revealing passwords, credit card numbers and other personal information. The research is for the benefit of the NSA and the federal government, but it's possible there could be public applications that would benefit everyone.

Doing such important research is a world that his younger self never could have imagined, said Dykstra, now 36. He's working on solutions to important, everyday problems.

"If I were to go back and talk to myself as a fifth-grader, I'd tell me these are real things that are happening," Dykstra said. "This is something you can aspire to."

There are likely children sitting in Sioux City classrooms right now wondering what makes their computer, or something else, work. They should know that scientists aren't just college professors in white lab coats doing experiments.

And they should keep seeking answers, just as Dykstra did.

"Ask 'What if?' or 'What if we did this a different way?'" Dykstra said.

Those are the questions that lead to breakthroughs and discoveries, the questions that scientists young and old have always asked.


Court reporter

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